Lesser Among Equals: Gender and Social Class in India

By Nidhi Bhatt

On my last visit to Mumbai, I travelled by the local train to experience the true flavor of the city. In the evening rush hour, I was lucky enough to get a seat in the first class ladies compartment. As the train started, a group of women seated across from me took out knives and little bags of vegetables, and started to sort and chop the produce. From the way they were dressed, I assumed they were professionals — so why were they doing this on the train? I asked, and they replied that they would reach home at dinnertime. Their husbands would also work and commute. But once the men got home, most would read the newspaper or watch TV while their wives would scramble to get dinner on the table.

Amused, I looked through the grill that separated the first and second class compartments. I saw a group of fisherwomen heading home after a long day at the market, chopping vegetables in nylon bags. Here were two groups of women, with different educational backgrounds, skill sets, and financial positions. Yet, there was not much of a difference in what was expected of them within the social and family structure. Some sat on plush seats wearing expensive dresses, others sat on wooden berths wearing simple sarees. All of them were chopping vegetables.

No matter what social class, gender is the great equalizer. The Indian social set-up is patriarchal in nature. The outworn norms are not only dictated by men but reinforced by women as well, making it difficult to break their vice-like grip. When my grandmother was recovering from a heart attack, she hired a caretaker named Varsha. One evening, Varsha came home crying. She informed us that the court had finally granted her a divorce. After a three-year legal battle, she was free from the relentless verbal and physical abuse she faced at the hands of her husband and in-laws. She came from a poor family. Her mother worked as a tailor and her father was an alcoholic, who couldn’t keep a job. Varsha, a bright student who had attended the municipal school, quit studying after high school to support her family and pay for a private education in an English-medium school for her younger brother. At twenty years old, she was married off to a graduate who worked as a clerk at a bank.

From the beginning, her mother in law was verbally abusive and kept Varsha busy with housework. She would insist on sleeping in the same room as the couple. Her husband lost interest in her within months and kept threatening to leave her for one of his many girlfriends. Once, while they were walking on the road, he pushed her towards a moving car. She got lucky and fell on the sidewalk.

She decided to walk out on her husband when he started physically abusing her. Back to her parents’ home, Varsha took a short training course in nursing and started working. She filed a divorce case against her husband and was assisted by an NGO working for women’s rights as her family had no money to pay for a lawyer. After three years, she got her freedom and some of her jewelry back. I thought she would be happy and relieved, but she was miserable. Her husband was all set to marry his girlfriend but she would have a tough time finding someone to settle down with. Living with her parents wouldn’t be the same for her as in India a girl’s “true home” is often considered to be her marital one.

My aunt’s friend, Dr. Chitra, had also walked out on a bad marriage. An educated woman whose parents were both dental surgeons, she married a highly qualified and well-settled man. However, her mother-in-law was domineering and her husband turned out to be verbally abusive. She had to rely on her parents for financial support as her husband gave his entire salary to his mother. She reflects, “At home I was treated like a slave, cooking, cleaning and taking care of my son. There was no social life and I had to face taunts and abuse all the time”. She couldn’t even complain to her husband because he would scream at her.

When her son was one and a half years old, her mother-in-law forced her to look for a job to support herself and her son. Ironically, this turned out to be the best thing that happened to her. She took up a job as a lecturer in a college and discovered a whole new world outside her unhappy home.

Why did she stay in such a relationship? For a long time, Dr. Chitra was worried about a how a broken marriage would affect her child. The social aspect of divorce and the fact that her child would not have a father made her delay the decision of walking out of the marriage. Things got worse when her husband and mother-in-law demanded all her earnings. Her parents were very supportive and when her lawyer told her that her husband could not take custody of her son, she left, never to look back again. She took up a job, went on to do her PhD, and even won a Fulbright scholarship to teach for a semester in the US.

In her own words, “The difficult part was answering questions. No one minds their own business in India. The questions hurt. I was sometimes made to feel as if I had done something wrong in leaving my husband. Also, my son’s teachers wanted to know where the father was. Initially I lied, creating a fictitious account of a father who was working abroad as all the school forms and report cards needed the father’s name and occupation. The mother’s name and occupation were irrelevant”.

Looking back, Dr. Chitra believes that one caring parent is better than two warring ones. The psyche of a child who grows up in an environment of domestic violence may be permanently scarred. Academics and the pressure to perform well in school can be challenging, and a disturbed home environment can upset the delicate balance between home and school. She is glad there are many progressive laws in place today and that school admission forms and report cards recognize single parenthood. Yet, people continue to be inquisitive and insensitive as they want to know where her husband is and how she will live by herself. She says, “My career has been a blessing providing a balm and my family has been the bulwark. Without them neither my son nor I could have accomplished what we did”.  Her son graduated from the prestigious IIT and IIM, is happily married, and lives and works in London.

Two women belonging to different social classes faced the same issues in their marriages, including abuse from their husbands and troubling internalized misogyny from their mothers-in-law. Dr. Chitra was able to overcome her unfortunate circumstances because she was educated, and had supportive parents who were financially stable and encouraged her to study further. For Varsha it would be a long and arduous road to independence and stability. She would, in all probability, be forced by her parents to remarry as they couldn’t make ends meet. Neither would she be able to buy a house for herself with her job as a nursing assistant. As a young woman with no family support, Varsha would also have to be careful as she was vulnerable to unwanted attention and exploitation from the men around her.

Compared to major cities, the gender equation in smaller towns and villages is highly skewed. Ms. Madhavi Trivedi is a nutritionist who works for Kellogg India. She and her team once conducted nutrition awareness workshops in some government-run schools in the villages of Maharashtra, a state in western India. As the tables were set for the students, all the girls waited for the boys to eat first. When questioned, most of the girls said that at home their fathers and brothers were served first and they ate with their mothers later. Almost all the girls said that they didn’t drink milk everyday as their brothers needed it more than they did.

Another study was conducted by Kellogg in four metro cities of India. Titled “Nutritional Adequacy of Breakfast: Its relationship to daily nutrient intake among children, adolescents and adults”, this study also revealed gender bias with regards to breakfast  with greater nutritional inadequacy among females.

Gender hierarchy not only dictates a woman’s status within her society and family, but her education and nutrition as well. Among the elite and educated class, gender inequality makes its presence felt in a subtle, insidious manner. Within my own extended family, I have aunts who, despite being highly qualified, have given up on their careers and aspirations in order to please their in-laws or raise their children after marriage.

In my opinion, the best way to bridge this gap is through education, empowering women within communities, raising boys to respect girls, and raising girls to know their rights. The roots of patriarchy are deeply entrenched in society and it’s only through education that we can hope to strike them at the fundamental level. Hopefully, gender equality will soon no longer be an abstract concept we have to fight for but a tangible reality.

Nidhi Bhatt is a currently a senior at Millburn High School. She is an avid reader, enjoys writing, swimming and playing the piano. Fluent in French, Hindi and Gujarati, she loves exploring history, food, and culture through travel, books, and chance encounters with people.  Nidhi is actively involved in community outreach and hopes to study Political Science, French, and Statistics in college.

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